- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
PHILADELPHIA -- At one point this season, Philadelphia Flyer center Danny Briere went 29 games and managed just one goal -- and that went into an empty net.
And so it is the perfect illustration of the restorative and redemptive powers of the playoffs that Briere would once again save the Philadelphia Flyers from themselves and take them one step closer to the Stanley Cup that has eluded this franchise for 36 years.
After having one overtime goal waved off because Briere kicked it past New Jersey netminder Martin Brodeur, Briere simply waited 2:23 later and pounded a puck through a maze of players to give the Flyers a 4-3 overtime victory over the New Jersey Devils in the first game of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Sunday afternoon.
The goal was Briere's seventh of the postseason, tying him for the league lead with teammate Claude Giroux, who also scored Sunday. Briere's 10 points through the Flyers' first seven playoff games are second to Giroux's 15.
In many ways, it is hard to reconcile Briere's work this spring with the player who struggled to recover from a concussion earlier in the season and looked like he might have lost his considerable mojo altogether, bouncing from line to line.
"Yeah, it was a tough, trying time," Briere said. "You know, looking back, I remember I had a severe concussion early in my career, when I was 21 years old, and it took me almost a year to bounce back from that. I don't know if that had anything to do (with it), but after the concussion this year I went into a lull for almost two months. Is it the case or not, or was I just bad?" Briere added with a grin.
"I don't know exactly, but when the playoffs started it was kind of a chance for a new season. You erase everything that's happened before, and you can't even look back at anything that's happened before in your career. It's a new season. And I was able to get a couple breaks in the first game in Pittsburgh, and after that things kind of got rolling."
Briere's overtime winner wasn't his only heroic moment of the day.
It was the diminutive Gatineau, Quebec, native who scored the Flyers' first goal of the game, tying the score at 1-1 just before the mid-point of the second period, deftly snapping a puck past Brodeur on a breakaway created by a lovely Jakub Voracek pass.
It was a seminal moment in a game that looked very much like it would follow a much different story arc.
After the Flyers had vanquished archrival Pittsburgh in six games in the first round, they rested for a full week before opening the second round.
The Devils, on the other hand, were coming off an emotional overtime win in Game 7 in Florida. They had battled back from a 3-2 series deficit, winning Game 6 in overtime as well.
On Sunday, they choked the life out of a lifeless Flyers team, registering the first 11 shots on goal. They opened the scoring on a pretty Patrik Elias pass to captain Zach Parise and by the end of the first period, the sullen Wells Fargo Center crowd sent the Flyers to their locker room to a chorus of boos.
Coach Peter Laviolette acknowledged he had no idea how his team was going to respond to the layoff, and needless to say he didn't like how it turned out.
"That question, it got asked a lot this week: 'What's going to happen? How are you going to be after the layoff?'" Laviolette said. "And I answered, 'I don't know,' because the truth of the matter is, you don't really know. You don't know if your team's going to come out jumping or whether it's going to take a bit. Nobody liked the first period. Players didn't like it, I didn't like it, fans didn't like it and we're not going to be successful playing that way."
Conversely, the Devils couldn't have been more pleased with how things began in Game 1.
But after jumping out to that 11-0 shot lead (and a 1-0 lead on the scoreboard) the Flyers outshot the Devils 36-15 over the course of the game and outscored the Devils 4-2.
"I think we couldn't sustain what we did in the first period. They took the game over in the second half. When you're just hanging on, that's what happens," coach Pete DeBoer said.
Was the Devils' recent schedule and the emotional toll of the first round a factor in what happened? Perhaps, but DeBoer wasn't looking to rationalize a disappointing loss.
"Sure, you can look to those things," DeBoer said. "We've haven't made excuses for those kinds of things all year; I'm not going to start now. They were the hungrier team the second half. What the reason for it was doesn't matter right now. We've got to get ready for Game 2."
Netminder Martin Brodeur, coming off a sensational 43-save performance in Game 7 against Florida, wasn't afraid to acknowledge the quick turnaround was hard for the Devils to handle.
"They were fresh, and it showed," said Brodeur, who stopped 32 of 36 shots. "It was a little hard for us to play the last two periods and overtime. We came through a tough series against the Panthers, and we're coming back quick. Now we have a little more than 48 hours to rest up and get ready for Game 2."
After the frenzy of emotion that preceded the Flyers' opening series against Pittsburgh, it was perhaps understandable that there was a kind of emotional vacuum that greeted the start of this series. There is no natural enmity between these two teams beyond their geographic proximity.
The fans in Philadelphia don't instinctually hate Parise as they do Sidney Crosby.
But as the game moved along, the open ice that marked the Pittsburgh series returned and it was Philadelphia that dictated play and earned the greater scoring chances.
Credit the Devils for not letting the game get entirely away from them. They fell behind quickly after Briere's first goal but rebounded to tie it first at 2-2 on a power-play effort by Game 6 overtime hero Travis Zajac. Then, they tied it 3-3 midway through the third period on a Petr Sykora goal, a long hard shot that beat netminder Ilya Bryzgalov five-hole.
And that brings us back to the finale.
A Devils goal would have sent this series off on an entirely different path but instead the hero stepped forward from the other bench.
Who can say what it is about the playoffs that brings out the best in people -- or the worst, for that matter?
Whatever that elusive quality is, call it the winning gene; it is something Briere clearly possesses.
It somehow exists in him and allows him to move beyond disappointment and injury and slumps that might drive a lesser athlete to distraction.
"I think some people rise to the big occasions," Laviolette said. "It speaks to the player, not a game. I think through the course of history in sports, there are people who answer the bell."
As a child, Briere said he imagined these moments. Now, as an adult, he lives them.
In his past 41 postseason games, Briere has scored 26 goals. Overall, he has 106 points in 104 playoff games.
"I don't know, is it pressure? It's fun," Briere said. "I was saying earlier, I grew up watching playoff hockey when I was a kid and I always dreamed I would have the chance to play in those big games. When I have the opportunity like I have right now, this year, like I've had the last few years in the playoffs, you try to make the best of it. You try to enjoy it as much as possible. So it's not really pressure. It's a fun time, an exciting time."
11dScott Burnside and Craig Custance